Friday, January 06, 2006

Cannabis Confusion

Charles Clarke has admitted that the 'reclassification' of cannabis has confused people. No shit, Sherlock! Sending out signals that something is OK, whilst keeping it a criminal offence, is designed to wreak havoc. Talk about mixed messages!

The deeper issue, of course, is what we actually want our policy on cannabis to be. This is a much harder issue, because we are working from the starting point of cannabis being illegal. Thus, any "declassification" or decriminalisation, or even legalisation, sends out the message that previous information about cannabis was wrong. It is safer than we thought it was - not that a need to change societal attitudes to government regulation brought about the change.

That said, any sensible policy has to start with the fact that no matter what people may want to be the case, there will be cannabis use in fairly sizeable numbers. The decision taken has to be whether we want to confine the health risks as much as possible in number, but not in strength, or vice versa. If we want to confine the number of health risks, then cannabis has to be made as highly classified as can maintain the confidence of public opinion. The more stringent the penalties for possession and use, the more people are likely to be deterred (this, of course, works on the presumption that the police are going to pursue cannabis use).

On the other hand, the questions regarding psychological harm caused by cannabis seem to be predicated on the type of cannabis that is consumed - that it is variations that have been developed more recently that cause the strongest problems. If a solution is sought to that problem, then the best means of controlling it is increasing governmental regulation - which can only happen if cannabis is legalised. The benefit of this is that the type of cannabis sold can be controlled more easily, and its sale brings in tax revenue that can then be passed on to sorting out the health problems caused. (Of course this works on a presumption, too, that cannabis mass-produced and taxed sufficiently would still be cheaper than illegal sale). Additionally, there is the chance that making cannabis above-board would break its role as a 'gateway' drug by removing it from the hands of drug dealers.

The corollary, of course, is that legalising cannabis will undoubtedly increase the number of users, because it sends out the signals that information has changed. There are, additionally, questions about whether it would increase the amount of drugs trafficked through Britain. But a policy on cannabis use needs to take one line or the other - an unconvincing, poorly argued, ill thought-out mish-mash of lines doesn't help anyone.